View Chapters

Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 9. Food for the Dead, Food for the Living

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43882


Food and drink have played a fundamental role within the process of death and grieving since ancient times, when funerary feasts and the desire to sustain the deceased in his or her journey to the afterlife were a central component of the ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek civilisations. It continues to play an important part in the material world of grief and, though the types of sustenance and the rituals vary between cultures, religions and geography, food and drink is a universal constituent in how the living come to terms with loss. In this chapter, I explore the role that food and drink plays in death and mourning using examples from a variety of different world cultures and covering a span of differing time periods. It will highlight how some cultures care for the dead, whilst others remember them, and will highlight the role that food and drink plays as a ‘means of social bonding following a rupture in the community.’ Here eating and drinking is understood as a communal action that consoles, supports, and helps the bereaved with dealing with their loss. Food can also operate as a material conduit between the living and the dead. Whether it is the Sin-eaters of 19th century Wales, or the Mexican Day of the Dead altars whose food nourishes the dead, there is a sense that the living can help with the deceased’s journey and afterlife through food and drink. I will also explore how food and drink can provide a shared ritual space in which the bereaved come together to think about life, death, and life after loss, not just at the time of death but also as part of bigger celebrations of remembrance. In exploring the role of food in death and ritual practice in this chapter, we see how food and drink can fulfil many levels of human need. It can be nourishing, comforting, fulfil a spiritual necessity, be symbolic, evoke familiarity, and honour a culture or the deceased. Furthermore, food and drink become the medium through which communal, ethnic, and religious identities are formulated, conveyed, and reinforced.

Chapter Contributors